“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Sherlock Holmes reveled in proclaiming his catchphrase at the exact moment Watson (and readers) were completely baffled.
“Baffled” describes me pretty well right now. In 2021 I keep asking myself, Am I crazy for believing this? I’m not alone.
Partisans engage in scorched-earth battles on numerous fronts, and we’re constantly pressured to join the fight. Charges of conspiracy theories and fake news inundate our feeds daily. Treading water while searching for what’s true has become exhausting. Trust in institutions has fallen to historic lows.
I sometimes wish Holmes could show up at my door and, with a cocky grin, explain everything. Here are lessons we can learn from Holmes as we navigate these confusing times.
1. Avoid Easy, Comfortable Narratives
Holmes mystified his crime-fighting peers using a strategy as elementary as it was effective: a steadfast refusal to assume the narrative of a crime, instead allowing accumulated evidence to reveal the true story.
During Jesus’s time, Jews also dealt with contested narratives. The common narrative had been challenged by a small-town carpenter turned itinerant teacher and healer. When his teachings were questioned, however, Jesus pointed to the facts: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37–38).
John’s Gospel describes one religious leader who took Jesus’s advice to heart. Nicodemus was torn between two narratives. His time with Jesus (John 3) prompted him to defend Christ, to the mockery of his peers. They even shamed him with an appeal to fact: the Messiah wasn’t supposed to come from Galilee. “Are you from Galilee too?” (John 7:52).
When I face difficult issues, my reflex is to entrench in the most popular, familiar, or expected narrative. That’s comfortable and easy. Comfortability and ease, though, haven’t produced much wisdom. Taking Jesus’s advice means having the courage to examine our beliefs, seek untainted evidence, and hold our conclusions with humility, which would make Sherlock proud.
Resistance to easy entrenchment begins with thick skin. Wherever I stand on a certain issue, some will scoff. Mocking and resistance will be inevitable. Yet the need for popularity and acceptance can dull my critical sensibilities. If I’m to discover what’s true, I first need to put truth ahead of being liked. Actual correctness must always take precedence over political correctness.
2. Investigate Evidence
Once we’ve committed to withstanding criticism and the peer pressure to fall in line with a particular narrative or interpretation of facts, we need to investigate the evidence. We must look not only at the facts presented to us, but also at facts that are more hidden. Many arguments hinge on a particular set of facts that do not acknowledge other evidence. Awareness of this dynamic is critical, and exploring counter-arguments and counter-narratives—each emphasizing different evidence—is important for reaching a more objective analysis.
Put truth ahead of being liked. Actual correctness must always take precedence over political correctness.
Focus on primary sources rather than relying on another’s summary or interpretation of evidence. If someone invokes a scientific study, read the study, and see if others exist. Rather than accepting soundbites or paraphrased summaries, consider quotations in their original contexts. Separate evidence from interpretation and facts from commentary. Sometimes we’re not only told what happened, but with the same matter-of-fact language we’re also told what it means and how to respond. It’s often wise to tune out the interpretation and draw our own conclusions.
Sherlock would also have us be wary of subtler tactics that can obfuscate truth. One strategy positions unrelated facts alongside relevant evidence. Ad hominem, a common rhetorical maneuver, shifts the focus of a debate by questioning a person’s character rather than the argument at hand. Whataboutism—deflecting attention from incriminating evidence here to something incriminating over there—is another increasingly popular tactic we must guard against.
3. Seek Truth with Humility
Even Sherlock would likely be daunted by today’s explosion of diverging narratives. “Truth” of every sort is highly contested, as we know too well from time spent on social media. This is not necessarily all bad—it’s helpful to examine our beliefs—but it can be overwhelming.
We must feel the freedom to be “in process” in studying current issues. It’s OK to not know all the answers. It’s OK to be methodical, rather than announcing your opinion on every complex issue as quickly as you can. It’s not OK to accept narratives uncritically for the sake of comfort or ease. Had Nicodemus succumbed to that pressure, heaven would host one less saint. Instead, Nicodemus searched for the truth and found it in Jesus, confidently aligning himself with the crucified Christ in John 19.
It’s OK to be methodical, rather than announcing your opinion on every complex issue as quickly as you can.
In this “post-truth” era of rampant subjectivism and ever-present ideological battles, faithfully walking with Christ leads to solid epistemological advantages. As we turn in repentance from our sin to God’s truth, we’ll naturally hold our positions in humility, without the need to be right. We will more easily accept that our wisdom and gut instincts are fallible, and we’ll be open to correction. Awareness of blind spots will make us more committed to truly investigating evidence, knowing it may well conflict with our initial assessments. This will help us engage graciously with those who disagree with us.
Instead of banging war drums against ideological enemies, we can invite others to walk alongside us—and Nicodemus—as we together search for the truth. Perhaps we’ll even help others find the true answer to that greatest question of all, worthy of Sherlock Holmes: Who is Jesus?